I told you that you would need to remember Numbers 25 for this one. So, first, a brief recap:
In Numbers 25, the people of Moab and Midian had their women seduce the Israelite men and then lead them into idolater. They were advised to do this by Balaam, who Balak , king of Moab, had previously hired to curse Israel. Their plan worked well and God punished Israel. All the men who had committed adultery were killed and 24,000 people died from a plague that God sent. God then gave Moses this command.
“Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them, because they treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the affair of Peor and their sister Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of Peor.” – Num 25: 17, 18
God asked the Israelites not to forget what the Midianites had done to them, but to make sure they fought them for it. Call this vengeance or revenge or justice or just plain old restitution.
Here in numbers 31, the Israelites finally get around to doing it. God tells Moses,
“Take vengeance on the Midianites for the Israelites. After that, you will be gathered to your people. ”
Moses puts together and army. The army attacks Midian and wins. They kill all the men (including Balaam) and take the women, children, livestock and goods. When Moses learns of this, he is very angry and asks the people why they let the women live. After all, it was the women who seduced the Israelite men and led them into idolatry. They were instrumental in the whole thing. That was when he uttered the now famous statement.
“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” – Num 31: 15 – 18
You can hear that statement trumpeted from the rooftops as evidence of the evil of Christianity and an example of rape in the Bible. The story goes that the sexually perverse and bloodthirsty Israelites, after killing all the men, killed all the young boys and women who had ever had sex (because they were impure) and saved the virgin girls for sex later. They also had to rape the girls right there because how else could they figure out who was a virgin and who was not?
Some of those things are pretty straightforward to answer.
- Why were the virgins saved and the other women killed? Was it for sex?: That conclusion is unnecessary. Evidently, the virgins had nothing to do with seducing and leading away the Israelite men. Therefore, if as Moses said, the women were being killed for their part in hurting the Israelites, it makes sense that the virgins were excluded.
- Why were the boys killed?: I do not know. I once heard someone say that the only other options were to either assimilate them or leave them to starve. If they were assimilated into Israel, they might have later grown up and took revenge upon the Israelites. I believe that is conceivable but I cannot give a more solid answer than that.
- How do you know the girls were not raped?: I cannot say that not one of the girls was sexually assaulted. I am in no position to know such a thing. However, I can say that such actions were condemned. Sex outside of marriage was forbidden. If any man saw a captured woman that he liked, he had to marry her (I assume this required her consent), first giving her time to mourn her family and then she had the full rights of a wife. (deut 21: 10 – 14)
- How did they know which women were virgins and which were not without raping them?: Dressing. Women sometimes dressed differently according to their class – virgins, married women, temple prostitutes, etc. They could have some sort of special jewelry, shawl or head gear. For instance, the virgin daughters of the king on Israel had a special ornamented robe that they wore. (2 Sam 13: 18)
- If the girls were not going to be raped or used as sex slaves, why did Moses say the people could take them ‘for yourselves’?: They did take them for themselves. Who else would they have taken them for – God? In the chapter, the girls are divided among the groups in the community. That the Israelites took them ‘for themselves’ says nothing about what was done with them. It is merely a statement about what group or person they belong to.
All the captives and plundered goods were shared among the people, warriors, priests and Levites. The Warriors got a larger share than the others (except perhaps the priests and Levites.
The warriors later counted themselves and found out that not one of them was missing so they gave an offering to God.
I do have real questions/problems with this chapter.
1. It seems quite improbable that all the men and women killed actually had a hand in the incident. Does this constitute injustice?
2. The reasons I have heard for killing the boys are far from satisfactory. I know that I cannot judge the situation until I actually know why it was done and this irritates me all the more. There’s nothing like having to say ‘I don’t know’ whenever someone asks that question.
3. What was done to the girls who were not killed?